Snowpack is the principal mechanism for seasonal water storage in the West, accounting for over 160 million acre-feet of water annually. Changes in snowpack impact all aspects of the hydrologic cycle, including evapotranspiration, groundwater recharge, runoff and streamflow. These in turn affect vegetation, habitat, species and landforms, in addition to how our cities, farms and towns function and interact with natural water systems.

I have been reflecting on a recent study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyzing long-term trends in snowpack in the West. In this post, I highlight a couple findings from the study and offer my thoughts on preparing for our low-to-no-snow future. Plus, I share lessons learned on how to successfully deliver transformative solutions for a better water future.

There were a couple of things that struck me about this study. First and foremost, I was struck by the dramatic projections of persistent low-to-no-snow conditions, widespread throughout the West, that are expected to occur within my lifetime, especially in the face of continued high emissions of greenhouse gasses.

But I was also intrigued by the simple truth that these dire projections do not represent a shift from contemporary trends. Instead, they show a continuing trajectory of the changes we have already seen in snowpack conditions in the West over the last 50 years or so. We are already experiencing many of the effects of persistent and long-term declines in snowpack driven by anthropogenic climate change.

Persistent low-to-no-snow conditions in the West will create severe and cascading impacts on our cities, agriculture and natural environments. As we envision future water systems, we cannot simply respond to and plan around episodic droughts. We must fundamentally reimagine the way we manage our water in the West to be resilient to persistent, long-lasting low-to-no-snow conditions.

What does it mean to fundamentally reimagine the way we manage water in the West? How do we do it, and how do we know if we are making the right decisions? What investments should we be making? And how do we make big decisions in the face of such uncertainty? To answer these questions and more, there are three basic pillars to build upon:

  1. Proactive, broad based and inclusive cross-sector engagement and collaboration.
    New ideas and approaches come from new conversations that encompass perspectives of diverse stakeholders. Traditionally, our infrastructure has developed within silos, with single benefit projects being built in specific sectors, such as water, energy, transportation, housing and agriculture. This approach is not only resource intensive, but it can create new problems even as it seeks to deliver solutions. Plus, it can miss opportunities to achieve multiple benefits and synergies between sectors, and it can neglect considering cumulative effects, especially on our most vulnerable communities and environments. Forming and sustaining forums for cross-sector collaboration and building inclusive cross-sector engagement into traditional planning and project delivery can create many benefits, including innovation that drives new solutions and approaches to tackle big challenges like long-term decline in snowpack.
  • Robust and ongoing integrated resources planning.
    Integrated resources planning is a process that seeks to identify and address needs, drivers, context, risk, costs and benefits across a broad range of water resources management decisions, incorporating social, environmental and economic considerations.  Integrated resources planning will often take place at the watershed and/or regional scale, can encompass multiple jurisdictions, and generally includes considerations of energy and climate. Effective integrated resources planning employs an inclusive process and incorporates robust decision-making frameworks and toolsets with scenario driven analysis to address uncertainty. And the output of integrated resources planning typically includes an adaptive implementation plan, with “no-regret” recommendations and stepwise strategies tied to triggers to support right-timed actions under changing conditions.
  • Restorative, multi-benefit, One Water solutions.
    Projects for a better water future must go beyond mitigating their impacts, beyond simple sustainability. Next generation projects must be restorative, leaving their context significantly better than pre-project conditions. Ideally, this restorative effect can be broadly quantified across environmental, social and economic measures. Additionally, next generation projects must embrace the paradigm and frameworks of One Water, that is all water has value and should be managed in a sustainable, inclusive and integrated way. And finally, these projects must provide multiple benefits, derived from an understanding developed through the first two pillars above.

OK, so you have applied the pillars above, and now you have a supported One Water solution that you want to implement. What does it take to deliver that project successfully? I have spent 25 years studying, envisioning, designing and implementing water projects throughout the West and have learned a few things that can help—a best practices checklist of sorts. Consider each of these, and whether your program could benefit from additional focus or action.

  1. Strategic alignment – Verify your project aligns closely with the strategic priorities of your organization and those of your stakeholders. If it doesn’t align, why not? If you’re not sure what your organization’s strategic priorities are, or if they are out of date, then perhaps it’s time to revisit your strategic plan. Align your strategic priorities and communicate that alignment to build support and momentum on your program. A perfect example of this is San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. They recently completed their strategic plan, and it directly led to the development of Watershed Connect, an ambitious regional program of interrelated infrastructure projects designed to enhance the Upper Santa Ana River Watershed.
  • Level 5 leadership – This is a term I’ve borrowed from Jim Collins that characterizes the type of leadership that is effective for delivering transformative One Water solutions. The combination of humility, discipline, commitment to the cause and indomitable will defines Level 5 leadership and can sustain One Water solutions through the inevitable twists and turns. The Cayucos Sanitary District leveraged the Level 5 leadership of its board president and general manager to envision and deliver the ambitious Cayucos Sustainable Water Project, a multi-benefit project that transcends the agency’s small size. The City of Camarillo’s North Pleasant Valley Desalter relied on the Level 5 leadership of the City’s Deputy Director of Public Works to relentlessly drive the project through many obstacles, ultimately delivering an extraordinary One Water asset to the community and region.
  • Sincere, inclusive and sustained engagement – Engaging communities and stakeholders requires sincere intention, planning, outreach, listening, transparency, communication and a commitment to building trust with diverse participants. In my experience, sincere intention is the most important piece of this puzzle. Without it, engagement efforts can fall flat. One example of powerful engagement is Water Vision Santa Barbara, an integrated resources planning process led by the City of Santa Barbara. The process set the stage for the City’s long-term water supply plan, which led to broad based community engagement and support for the plan’s recommendations.
  • Transformative partnerships – One Water solutions are almost always derived from and supported by partnerships. Even if your program is being envisioned and delivered by a single organization, consider the partnerships that will contribute to the successful life cycle of the project. These partnerships can come in many forms, can encompass differing levels of engagement, and can include sister agencies, regulators, funders, consultants and contractors, and/or non-governmental organizations, among others. Replenish Big Bear is a One Water program that is being delivered by a partnership between a municipal water agency, a community services district, water district and wastewater authority, aligned around achieving multiple benefits for their rural, headwaters community. Central Coast Blue is a One Water program that relies on the transformative partnership between three small communities on California’s Central Coast to produce a long-term sustainable water source for the region while protecting its vulnerable groundwater basin from seawater intrusion.
  • Effective program structure and project delivery strategy – Ambitious One Water solutions are made possible by people. To be effective, people need to work together in a structure that provides clear roles and responsibilities and leverages the skills and experience of its team members to maintain accountability and performance while effectively managing risk. SLOWater+ leveraged an experienced program management team to steer the City of San Luis Obispo’s single largest capital project through every stage of project delivery, from concept through successful completion, to create a valued community asset.

It’s true what they say, big challenges require bold action. In the arid West, we’re certainly faced with big challenges as we work to secure our collective water future in the face of the daunting effects of climate change. This is the time for bold action. But our efforts must be more than daring and courageous. They must be strategic, informed and supported. I’ll provide additional thoughts from time to time, and as always, I appreciate hearing from you and learning from your experiences. Thanks for taking the time to read this post, and I look forward to connecting with you soon!